Well, they're back. :)
This chapter went through a lot of pushing, pulling, hemming and hawing, but it's finally in a state of completion, I think, or close enough. ;) Apologies for the long delay -- it's been everything from vacation, to work, to short one-shots getting my attention, to Dragon Age 2 (which, to be honest, has had minimal impact, creatively...). This should be the end of this rather long 24-hour period that's taken up 4 chapters of the story... ~_~ Next time: back to the actual game plot!
A big thanks to Sresla
, and syverce
for their input on this one!Well-Woven Net, Knot 19:
Miracles of the UnremarkableAuthor: jenovaRating:
If it had been up to Zevran, he would have sent Arl Eamon's messenger away with a few choice words, but Alessar resignedly agreed to see the arl within the hour for what was promised to be a "brief discussion".
"They need to know I'm still capable of... well, anything," The elven Warden said to him with a small smile. "I can't just stay here and hide until the civil war ends and the Blight goes away." He still looked exhausted, but in the past couple of hours the look of despair in his eyes had faded; Zevran only hoped that the improvement was not temporary.
Aside from a few minutes spent on the business of piercing Alessar's ear (the sight of that familiar sapphire dangling from his left ear was still strange, but quite pleasing), the two elves had done nothing of real consequence this afternoon. They'd spent a while on small tasks — equipment upkeep and the like — in companionable near-silence, but Zevran had surreptitiously kept an eye on the other elf throughout. When he seemed to slow down in his work and become lost in his thoughts, the assassin distracted him with small talk and innocuous questions about the city of Denerim.
Zevran suspected that the other elf would be struggling with both unpleasant memories and his own sense of self-worth for some time to come. The former was easy enough for him to understand; he had plenty of incidents in his past that had festered in his mind for far too long, especially when he was younger. After he'd been a working assassin for a few years, he'd learned how to suppress those memories, and how to distract himself with other things... and perhaps most importantly, by the time he was was twenty, it was very difficult to shock or move him anymore, to make him really feel
anything below the surface. That might have been why what happened with Rinna had been so momentous; it shook him in a way nothing had in years, and had cut him in places he thought had turned to stone long before.
Thinking along those lines made him realize — or, perhaps more aptly, remember
— what Alessar must have been up against. It had been years since Zevran had felt those things: the rage against the aggressor, the powerlessness, the self-loathing that came from eventually giving in because pride wasn't worth dying for... Among the Crows, of course, there was no solace to be found — how could there be, when many of these abuses came at the hands of other Crows? But Alessar was not a product of such a system, and he now bore wounds that neither of them knew how to cope with.
The Warden was strong, though, in ways that had taken Zevran some time to understand. He wasn't weak for soliciting everyone's opinions before making decisions; he had the wisdom to admit that he did not always know the best way to resolve things. His trust in others could
have been a weakness, but the truth of it was, the only way to win the trust of others was to to give it to them in return, and this, Alessar had done in spades. His open displays of emotion didn't make him weak, even though he might have thought so at times; he used those feelings as a different source of strength, something beyond they physical to call upon when his body had reached its limit.
Given that strength of mind and heart, Zevran hoped the elven Warden would recover. The only certain way he knew how to help was to simply be there, to engage the other man when his thoughts turned dark, to listen if he felt the need to talk, or to just remind him, with gestures large and small, that there were still things to take pleasure in, to smile about. It was maddening, in a way, only being able to support his lover through such seemingly indirect means, but it was a demonstration of how much Zevran had changed since coming to Ferelden; in the past, he'd certainly never have had the patience for such a thing. Even in recent months, he might have fled the silence, the awkwardness, the dredging up of old memories. But now, there was no question; he would stay by Alessar's side for as long as he was wanted.
With that in mind, he shouldn't have been surprised when he found himself reluctant to let Alessar go on his own to meet with Eamon. It was a ridiculous sentiment, since the arl's chambers were only a few yards away, and the other elf would probably be safer there than anywhere else in the residence. A little disconcerted by his own protectiveness, Zevran made only a token offer to accompany the Warden, who gave him a soft smile and shook his head.
"I'll be fine, Zev," he murmured, "and I'm not entirely sure Arl Eamon wanted anyone else there besides Alistair. But, you know, if I'm not back in a little while, feel free to barge in." This last was offered with a hint of a grin, and Zevran chuckled as much in pleasure to see such an expression on Alessar's face as in real amusement.
"Very well, cielo
. I do know where you keep your lockpicks," he said easily. They shared a brief kiss before the Warden slipped out, and then Zevran was left to his own devices. From past experience, he expected this meeting to take more than "a little while", so he decided to head to the market district in the meantime for a few errands. Perhaps a stop by the Crows' stall was in order; they were dealing in politics now, and poisons were always handy in these situations, whether for the politicians themselves or the guards they frequently surrounded themselves with.And after Taliesen's attack,
the assassin thought darkly, perhaps reminding Ignacio that the Warden is still in the game would not be a bad thing, either.
When Zevran returned to Alessar's room, nearly two hours later, there was no sign that the Warden had come back. Curious, but not truly worried yet, the Antivan elf stepped back out into the hallway, intending to walk the short distance to the arl's rooms, but as he turned the corner, he saw Alistair approaching from that direction.
"Ah, friend Alistair." He wondered why the young Templar trainee looked dazed. Perhaps he'd heard some unpleasant news? "Is your brother-Warden about?"
"My br— oh, right, Alessar. He, um, went to talk to Anora a little while ago. Maybe he's still there." The warrior seemed to pale further after making this explanation, which Zevran found puzzling.
"Are you well, my friend?" he asked in concern.
"Huh? Oh, no, I mean yes, I'm fine, I just, er... must have had something at supper that disagreed with me. But I'm sure Alessar's probably still talking with the Queen." Alistair's eyes darted down the corridor where both Alessar's and Anora's rooms were located. "I, um... I should be going outside, now, I think, sorry." With that, the man sidled past Zevran and headed rapidly towards the front of the house.Something that disagreed with him at supper? Why do I find that difficult to believe?
The Antivan elf had seen both Wardens demolish surprising quantities of food with little prejudice as to the quality or ingredients; he couldn't recall seeing either of them actually sick from eating something, and the food here should have been much better than their usual camp fare. Hmm. Perhaps what disagreed with him wasn't food...
Feeling a faint sense of unease, Zevran backtracked past the elven Warden's room and paused at Anora's door for a moment to listen. The Queen was tentatively on their side at the moment, but they couldn't rule out the possibility that she might betray them to her father, and Alessar would be a key gamepiece in such a maneuver. The assassin hoped that his sometimes overly trusting lover would treat Anora with a healthy — but tactful — amount of skepticism.
It was nearly impossible to make out distinct words through the heavy oak door, but he could hear Anora and Alessar speaking at what seemed to be a normal volume, with no notes of alarm or anger. There were some long hesitations between exchanges — options being weighed heavily, or words being chosen carefully, perhaps. Whatever the topic of conversation, though, the Warden seemed to be safe. Finally acknowledging that he couldn't — and shouldn't — hover around Alessar like some sort of magical, protective shadow, Zevran sighed silently and returned to the other elf's room to wait.
He had just managed to coax the embers in the fireplace back into a healthy blaze when Alessar returned, wearing a weary expression that melted into a smile once he caught sight of the Antivan elf.
"Ah, finished with your duties for the day?" the assassin asked with a sympathetic grin, though he itched to know what those "duties" had been.
"Almost. I need to tell Alistair something quickly, but — have you eaten yet?" At Zevran's questioning look, the Warden explained, "I might as well snitch something from the kitchens while I'm out. I had supper with Alistair and Arl Eamon, but..." He smiled ruefully, knowing that the other man was familiar with his habit of finding something to nibble on after the evening meal.
Zevran couldn't have asked for a better opening. "I have, cielo,
but I would not be averse to a snack. If you can obtain some bread, that would be ideal."
"Ideal?" Alessar echoed, raising an eyebrow.
The assassin smirked as Alessar picked up on his wording. "If I explained now, that would ruin the surprise, no?"
The enticement had the desired effect; the Warden's steps were somewhat lighter as he ducked back out of the room, his smile promising that he'd be back as quickly as he was able. Indeed, it was little more than a quarter of an hour before he returned, carrying a bundle in a linen napkin that turned out to be a boule of bread and a wedge of mild white cheese.
Zevran gestured towards one of the benches by the fire, where he had already set out a bottle of wine, cups, and a pair of table knives. Shaking his head and smiling, the Warden complied with the unspoken directive, laying the napkin and its contents out on the seat for the two of them to share; once he seated himself, he looked up at his lover expectantly.
Was it foolish, the assassin wondered as he sat down across from Alessar, one hand behind his back in an obvious fashion, to find such enjoyment in giving people gifts? The Crows heavily discouraged, even punished, such sentimentality, and before joining the Wardens, he'd never received a meaningful gift before. Trinkets meant to buy his favor? Oh, yes. But something given just to make him happy, with no strings attached? It had triggered an unfamiliar, but not unwelcome, mix of emotions when the other elf had innocently presented him with that fine pair of boots: surprise at the gesture, confusion about the intention behind it, and pleasure in the items themselves. With subsequent gifts, the confusion had waned, but the delight had never faded.
Perhaps wishing for another to experience those same feelings was part of what drove people to give gifts in the first place. The Antivan elf would certainly be glad to provide the Warden with a bit of cheer right now, at any rate, and it was with that end in mind that he'd purchased something that seemed ideal while he was at the market. With Alessar watching him intently, he finally held out the jar he'd been hiding behind his back with an exaggerated flourish.
The other elf took the jar hesitantly and tilted it as he examined the contents, eying the viscosity of the golden substance within. "Honey?" His smile, still slightly shy after all they'd been through, was worth every penny of what Cesar had extorted out of him for the stuff, Zevran thought.
"Of course, cielo.
But not just any simple honey," he warned, although Alessar was enough of a connoisseur — and an herbalist — that he'd probably notice the unique aroma immediately.
The elven Warden opened the jar carefully to take a curious sniff of the contents, then sighed in satisfaction. "Oh, that's fantastic,
Zev. It smells like... petitgrain? Neroli?"
Zevran chuckled ruefully. He should have known better than to think he could leave the other man guessing. "You are right, of course, my dear Warden. It is orange blossom honey from Afsaana."
The mention of the stuff's origin seemed to make Alessar aware of just how precious it was; he moved to stopper the jar again, but the assassin stopped him with a light touch on his arm. "Shall we not try it, querido?
Just a taste, at least?"
The expression that briefly crossed Alessar's face was more serious than Zevran expected, and he thought he understood what it was immediately: the realization that, with the Landsmeet quickly approaching, this might be the last chance for this kind of indulgence. He wanted to say something lighthearted to turn the mood, but found himself at an uncharacteristic loss for words in the face of the usually optimistic Warden's despondency.
Before he could gather up something cheerful to say, however, the younger elf met his eyes and gave him a small smile. "Mm, yes, why don't we?" he agreed as he set the jar down again. "Just a little."
"We shall save the rest for a suitable occasion, yes?" Zevran said, trying to coax a happier expression from the Warden and only partially succeeding.
Figuring it might be best to change the subject, he reached for the bread and began to cut it into several rough slices while Alessar split the waxy rind off of the cheese. "So, cielo,
I understand you have met with the Queen, as well? A productive evening, I hope?" he asked as he carefully dolloped some honey onto a piece of bread and handed it to the other elf.
Alessar traded him a slice of cheese for the bread, and took a bite before replying, his eyes half-closed as he savored the unfamiliar flavor. The expression on his face made Zevran momentarily consider putting the honey to other uses, but he quickly pushed that thought away. Given the events of the past day, this was no time to entertain such notions — and even if Alessar was in a more comfortable state of mind, Zevran thought wryly, he'd probably argue against the waste of something so hard to obtain.
"Productive... yes, I'd say so," the Warden said finally. "If the Landsmeet goes as we hope, Alistair and Anora will marry."
Zevran nearly choked as Alessar let that particular fact drop so calmly. "Truly?" he managed to say after he cleared his throat. "They are now betrothed?" That would explain why the warrior had been so unsettled earlier...
"Mm." The dark-haired elf's smile was touched with a hint of sadness. "Anora will side with us in the Landsmeet, and we will advocate that she and Alistair marry and rule jointly. A popular queen and a Theirin king — Eamon and Anora agree that the scenario will have a lot of appeal to the Bannorn."
It was logical, and a neat way to formalize their tentative alliance, but it was still a surprising step. Surely Anora would have preferred to rule alone, and from what he'd seen, the Queen had no particular fondness for Alistair, but perhaps that was simply unfamiliarity on her part. As for the Templar trainee, Zevran couldn't quite suppress the thought of a virgin sacrifice. Experienced women had their charms — oh, did he know that well — but Alistair didn't seem the type who would, or could,
appreciate that particular benefit. It seemed unlikely that either one of them had raised the possibility of marriage.
He tilted his head and regarded Alessar thoughtfully. "And whose idea was this, my dear Warden?"
The other elf looked down pensively into his cup of wine. "Arl Eamon said something along those lines a little while back... in passing, really, just a possibility thrown out during a discussion of options for the Landsmeet. But when I went to talk to Anora..." he sighed heavily. "She very much wanted me to support her, just
her, for the throne, in exchange for her help mobilizing against the Blight. But..."
"But you cannot trust her that far," Zevran guessed.
"Exactly. Well," the Warden backtracked, "I don't think she'd turn against us entirely. She knows that Ferelden needs to act, now, to protect what we can... And she knows that for that to happen, her father must be stopped. But would she give us the help we needed now? Would she help rebuild the Wardens after this is over?" He ran a finger around the rim of his cup. "We came here to put Alistair on the throne." There was a thread of guilt in his voice as he spoke. "He
knows what we're up against."
But, of course, Alistair had been unhappy about the idea of taking the crown for quite a while, which Alessar would know quite well. "It is
a useful thing, having a friend on the throne," Zevran said lightly. "I take it he has accepted this plan, also?"
"Yes." Alessar gave him a small smile. "The logic is too clear, and Eamon agreed with me, although I don't think he liked that Alistair would have to share the throne. But if we turned Anora away, and she sided with her father and just tried to make him see reason..." The dark-haired elf rubbed his face tiredly, but when he lowered his hand, his eyes were unexpectedly sharp. "We must
remove him from all spheres of influence, or he'll continue to block us. This alliance just seems like the best way to do that — and you know that Alistair would do nearly anything to take Loghain down. He's agreed to it, and we'll head into the Landsmeet with a unified front."
This firmness, this certainty, was unlike Alessar. He was capable of making weighty decisions, yes, but he seldom projected such a grim air of... Duty? This is the Grey Wardens' charge, is it not? To stop the Blight by any means?
Zevran reflected on how, at first, Alessar's kind, friendly demeanor had clashed with his own notions of what Grey Wardens should be like; over the past year, the younger elf had grown into his role, it seemed. It was like something from an old tale, a poor boy who had become a great knight, but while it sounded glorious and admirable in a storybook, there was something sad, melancholy, in the reality that was unfolding before him.Perhaps it is simply because this tale does not have an end yet,
he thought. How does the expression go? "The night is darkest before the dawn"? Surely, when this is all over, there will be time for lightheartedness.
Trying to keep that thought in mind, he said out loud, "So, we have our arguments and our claimants for the throne. Do you trust Anora to uphold her end of the bargain? Particularly when pitted against her own father?"
Alessar nodded slowly. "She has given her word, and that is all we can ask for, I suppose. I don't know what advantage she'd get from turning on us before the Landsmeet itself — it isn't as if we have any secrets to ferret out that she can take back to Loghain," he said with a shrug. "But if she turns against us there, we could all be arrested, and..."And taken back to Fort Drakon.
The thought was clear as day, and Zevran reached over to take one of the other elf's hands in his own. "It will not come to that, cielo,
" he said quietly, a promise, even if Alessar didn't understand it as such.
The Warden gave him a tenuous, grateful smile. "I don't think she'll move against us, though." He looked away for a moment, his expression difficult to read. "She told me about something I need to look into, something that may pull Loghain further out of favor."
"There's... apparently something going on inside the Alienage that's creating a degree of unrest," the Warden said quietly. "She isn't sure what."
"Then we will investigate, yes?" the Antivan elf said more than asked. "And you can see your family. I am sure they will be happy to see you, regardless of the circumstances, my dear Warden."
"I don't even know if they're still alive, Zevran." Alessar's voice was soft, as if saying such a thing at a normal volume might make his fears come true. "We should have gone there first — I should never have waited this long—"
You were attacked by Crows in your first day here, spent the next recovering, and then we went to rescue the Queen. Today was spent recovering from that.
You have not exactly had a wealth of free time," Zevran pointed out gently.
"I could have gone today," the other elf said lowly, "instead of staying here and... and hiding from everything. What if what Howe said—"
Zevran reached out and pressed a finger to Alessar's lips, silencing him. "We will go tomorrow, querido,
even if it is just the two of us, and we will find out what is happening. You must know that Howe was simply trying to provoke you. Do not give so much weight to his words."
The Warden finally met his eyes and nodded reluctantly, prompting Zevran to withdraw his hand. "I asked Alistair to tell the others — we are
going in tomorrow," Alessar said quietly. "It was Howe who imposed the lockdown of the Alienage, and with him gone, apparently a lot of his guards have left their posts. Remember how we heard some of them complaining about not being paid?"
Zevran let out a bark of wry laughter. "How fortunate for us. We'll find the root of this problem, then, my dear Warden, and if it is something we can use against Loghain, all the better," he said firmly.
Alessar simply nodded mutely and returned to his food, finishing the honeyed bread in silence and washing it down with a last cup of wine. Zevran ate more slowly, watching as the other elf went about his nightly rituals and ablutions. He seemed to move with more surety than this morning, when they'd just returned from Fort Drakon, or earlier this afternoon; it was as if his inner insecurities were manifest in physical action, and both were gradually relaxing.Perhaps with the wine, he will sleep soundly tonight,
the assassin mused, but he knew that restful sleep was always a roll of the dice, as far as the Warden was concerned. Hmm. At least that handful of lavender is still tucked into his pillow...
Finished with his share of the late meal, he rose and brushed any crumbs from his clothes before crossing the room to bid Alessar goodnight. The other elf's lips tasted of wine and honey, and Zevran reflexively licked his own lips as they parted.
"Certainly not a disagreeable flavor on you, cielo,
" he chuckled. The Warden smiled slightly in reply, but his eyes seemed oddly intent, and Zevran finally noticed that the other man had not yet released him from his tentative half-embrace. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Alessar said hastily, "nothing's wrong, I just..." He looked away for a moment, seemingly gathering his nerve before meeting the assassin's eyes again. "Zevran... Would you stay?" Before Zevran could reassure him that he had no intention of leaving — had the younger man gathered nothing
from today's events? — he added quickly, "Tonight, I mean."
Somehow, though it was entirely reasonable on this particular evening, the Antivan elf hadn't anticipated the request, and he stared at his lover for a moment, caught flat-footed. It seemed like such a small thing, and perhaps between others it would be. Between the two of them, however...
He had been taught long ago to never linger in a lover's bed; as an assassin, most of his intimate moments were spent either with marks, who were dangerous for obvious reasons, or with other Crows, who might have any number of reasons for trying to harm him, from House rivalry to mere spite. It was a needless vulnerability for no gain, save perhaps the trust of a mark. This idea was so deeply ingrained by now that he had difficulty even imagining sleeping beside someone. What would it feel like, physically or mentally, to put himself utterly at the mercy of someone else as he slept? Being a light sleeper as he was, would he be able to lower his guard long enough to fall asleep, and stay that way, while curled up close with someone? Even someone he trusted with his life?
Beyond those purely practical considerations, sharing a bed, or a tent, carried implications that he hadn't been ready to accept. It was a measure of intimacy the other elf had clearly wanted, although he'd accepted Zevran's explanations and excuses up until this point. He'd been tempted, sorely tempted by Alessar before now, his feelings towards the Warden strong enough to override some of his instinctive wariness. But to raise this question tonight — was this a test of the assassin's commitment? That seemed almost petty; it was Zevran,
after all, who had pushed their relationship, such as it was, into new territory when he'd offered his earring.Or could it simply be that he
needs this right now?
he chided himself. Can I truly deny him that?
That was easy enough to answer — he didn't wish to deny Alessar anything, if he could help it. He might be quite bad at saying so, but, as the saying went in Ferelden, actions would speak louder than words. It was with actions, therefore, that he answered the other man's request: guiding his steps backwards towards the bed until the backs of his knees hit the down mattress, gently pushing him to sit down and pinning him in place with a slow, lingering kiss, and finally drawing away slowly to make his own preparations for bed. He could feel Alessar's eyes on him the entire time, and he half-wondered if the Warden expected him to suddenly vanish. When he finally returned to the bed, though, he was greeted with a soft, shy smile as Alessar seemed to accept that he was, in fact, going to stay.And that,
Zevran thought as he extinguished the lamp on the bedside table, is worth some sleep lost, I think.
Some time in the darkest hours of the night, the assassin was nudged awake, Alessar pawing at him while in the throes of some dream. There was no clear way to tell if the dream was pleasant or not; Zevran settled on giving the other elf a little shake to jar him out of it. It seemed to work, and the Warden subsided with a wordless murmur, drawing away from his touch.
been difficult for Zevran to fall asleep with someone in such close proximity. At first, he'd simply waited for Alessar to drift off, curled up against him with his head resting on Zevran's chest. There had been something undeniably comfortable in that contact, something deeply intimate without being sexual, and for a while, he thought that perhaps he would be able to relax enough to sleep, himself. But he was hyper-aware of the man lying next to him, his nerves on edge and fighting to keep him awake. Even when Alessar eventually shifted away, leaving some space between them, Zevran could feel his very presence,
as if through an extra sense, and his assassin's instincts would not let him rest.
Eventually, he'd fallen asleep somehow, but now he was awake again, and he suspected that he'd have just as much trouble getting back to sleep as he'd had earlier. He couldn't hold it against Alessar, though; the elven Warden had been so transparently happy to have him near, and he,
at least, was sleeping more or less soundly. Something so simple wouldn't erase the memories of Fort Drakon, Zevran was sure, but if it cheered the other elf so very much... Surely he would become accustomed to this arrangement eventually, and until then, well, he'd been through plenty of sleepless nights in his life; what were a few more, for a good cause?